A small study from UCLA has suggested that workplace exercise programs offer mental health benefits in addition to physical health improvements. While the findings are probably accurate to some extent, there are some inherent limitations that need to be pointed out.
In Brief: Workplace Health Programs
In order to counter the negative health effects from excessive sitting, some workplaces have created health programs to help encourage activity among employees. About half of all employers in the U.S. offer workplace wellness plans.
The UCLA Study
For this study, the researchers used participants in UCLA’s own wellness program. There were 281 volunteers who all gave baseline measurements of mental health that were compared to measurements taken at the end of the 12-week program. The UCLA wellness program consists of three cardiovascular and strength training workouts per week for 12 weeks, with optional nutritional coaching. The exercise program is a group affair that is meant to foster social bonding and community.
For the mental health measurements, the participants were measured on how unpredictable, uncontrollable, or overwhelming their lives felt, physical and emotional health, vitality, social functioning, general health perceptions, and limitations due to physical or emotional problems.
The researchers found improvements across all seven scores that were measured. When averaged for overall mental health improvements, the scores went up by 19 percentage points (a raw increase). Reports of improved feelings of calm, coping ability, general well-being, and social satisfaction were also noted.
Where Things Go Wrong
The finding that an exercise program can improve mental health upon completion does not raise much debate. That finding isn’t where the issue with this study lies. The problem is when the authors try and say that their findings may suggest employee wellness plans and exercise programs can reduce healthcare costs from absenteeism or presenteeism and the associated productivity impairments. Trying to make this sort of implication, even with the caveat of “may” attached, fails for two main reasons.
First, no measurement of absenteeism/presenteeism or similar productivity issues is taken. There’s no way to know whether these rates were affected in any way by the exercise program. In order to say that X may be able to affect Y, it usually helps if you actually measure some element of Y in the first place. Simply saying there were reported improvements in some mental health measurements isn’t enough, and the reason why plays into the second problem, namely that only one-time measurements are used.
Plenty of things can produce temporary improvements to various mental health attributes. The fact that a 12-week physical wellness course made people feel better at the end is, strictly speaking, an unimportant finding. The more essential measure is the duration of the effect—how long the gains persisted and how sustainable they are. For all the researchers know, everyone went right back to their baseline a week after the study finished. Without any evidence suggesting a duration to the improvement, making inferences about long-term effects is extremely difficult. Simply following up with the participants two weeks or a month later would have worked.
Exercise can make you feel better. A workplace exercise course that promotes physical wellness, social bonding, and community can most likely improve a person’s outlook and some mental health attributes. Trying to extrapolate this to long term implications or productivity changes is pure speculation without actually measuring one of the relevant elements.
Emerson, N., et. al., “Effects of an employee exercise programme on mental health,” Occupational Medicine, 2016; 10.1093/occmed/kqw120.
Porterfield, A., “Exercise at work also has mental health benefits,” Medical Xpress web site, October 7, 2016; http://medicalxpress.com/news/2016-10-mental-health-benefits.html, last accessed October 11, 2016.